An Irish Carol is a tale of Christmas redemption that tastes not of sugar cookies and eggnog, but salted peanuts and shots of Jameson. The spirits here are of the earthbound, liquid variety instead of spectral tour guides from beyond but they prove to be ever as potent and revelatory for Dublin pub owner David.
If this Irish modernized, Irish twist on Ebenezer Scrooge’s wild night rings with familiarity then you might have already stumbled into David’s public house. Keegan Theatre’s holiday tradition since 2011, An Irish Carol is now celebrating its fifth anniversary and the first in the newly renovated and expanded space on Church Street.
My recent visit was my first since the theatre upgrades and my first time at An Irish Carol. Keegan has a winner on both counts. Others have previously outlined the details of Keegan’s renovations, but I will say the new, roomy theatre and upgraded lobby are impressive.
The show itself takes the outline of Dickens’ oft-told tale and offers a theme and variations that take the protagonist on a soul-searching journey that never leaves the pub, except in the pathways of memory. Written by Keegan Company member Matthew Keenan, An Irish Carol is infused with biting humor that provides an incisive look at the human condition. Unlike the busy array of comings and goings in the typical production of A Christmas Carol, Keenan grounds his play in a most Chekhovian manner – with much saltier language to be sure. Not much happens on the surface but underneath, especially under the gruff and melancholy nature of Scrooge-surrogate David, rush torrents of subtext.
Wealthy, solitary David – played with magnificent understatement by Kevin Adams – is an island of quiet, surly, prickly rage. When he’s not barking at his young, Polish barman – (Josh Stiklin) – or the rest of the world, David spends a lot of time seething with his own thoughts. Adams uses the silences masterfully, as he portrays David’s odyssey of the mind and heart. He faces a dwindling business, with only a few loyal neighborhood customers trickling in, especially on the big holiday. Like Scrooge, his soul is pretty empty, too. Sure, you can expect the same Christmas epiphany for David as Ebenezer, but the surprise of how and when his change of heart comes about is a true pleasure of Keenan’s Carol.
Even though David is not led through his Christmas Eve journey by ghostly visitors, his guides are just as effective as ghosts within the walls of his failing pub. Customers like big-hearted Jim – played affably by Mark A. Rhea – and fun-loving Frank – a gleeful turn by Timothy H. Lynch – are loyal to a fault to their neighborhood pub and to the flinty David. “He’s bollocks, but he’s our bollocks,” Frank proclaims. As Jim and Frank recall the old David, a flighty dreamer back in the day, two pivotal episodes rise to the surface: when David took full charge of the pub after his father’s death, and the love of his life he lost to a former employee. These incidents weave in and out of David’s present situation, and they are, of course, among the demons of the past he must face in order to set his soul aright.
As to the rest of the Christmas Eve pub patrons, Mike Kozemchak is David’s younger brother Michael, who presents a standing invitation for family Christmas. Jon Townson arrives as Simon, one of David’s former associates who makes an unwanted offer to buy the pub. Simon’s fiancé Anna – a graceful portrayal by Susan Marie Rhea – is the sole female character in the play and she provides an outsider’s perspective on David’s insular world. That world is ultimately turned upside down by the final visitor of the night, former employee Richard (Mick Tinder) who brings with him the spectre of old wounds and a letter from the woman who came between them.
Mark A. Rhea, serving double duty as director, allows the play to unfold and maximizes the finely tuned ensemble of players, many of whom are Keegan company members. The impressionistic setting of a dark-hued, seasoned public house is enhanced by a combination of stylized backgrounds and wintry projections by Patrick Lord.
Keegan is known for character-driven, actor-oriented theatre, and An Irish Carol is certainly a showcase for their many strengths. The show is also an engaging, humorous variation on a familiar Christmas tale.
AN IRISH CAROL by Matthew Keenan . Director: Mark A. Rhea . Featuring Kevin Adams, Mark A. Rhea, Josh Sticklin, Timothy H. Lynch, Michael Kozemchak, Jon Townson, Susan Marie Rhea, and Mick Tinder . Set design: Keegan Company . Lighting design: Dan Martin . Costume design: Kelly Peacock . Sound design: Jake Null . Projection design: Patrick Lord . Stage manager: Alexis J. Hartwick . Produced by The Keegan Theatre . Reviewed by Jeff Walker.